Donnelly’s Tales 7 – A Sense of Vocation
It’s a strange and dark impulse that calls people to the chalk face, old man (said Donnelly). Of course, sometimes it’s sheer accident! Take my own case: I left the Christian brothers with the thought uppermost in my mind that the one thing I would never ever do was become a teacher. Not that it expressed itself so clearly, of course. All I really thought then was that I’d like to see my erstwhile guides and mentors at the far end of a blind alley, and myself at the other end with a Thompson gun. In the event, I drifted into teaching while waiting for destiny to come along and sweep me into its warm and loving arms. It didn’t of course. And here I am still.
These days of course, it’s all a carefully structured career, with increments of pay and promotion and all that. But the people who turned up at St. Geoffrey’s in the old days, old man! What a galère! What a crew! Tom Hobbes and his hollow knobkerry with the removable top, full of the drop that revives and stimulates, for instance; who would ever let him loose on a bunch of the young and impressionable these days? Or Yorick Warwick? The man was a positive danger to the body politic! And who else would have given paid work and responsibilities to Edeltraut Runkelstirn, rather than a secure environment and occupational therapy, I mean? Or myself, even! My teaching practice consisted of being shunted into a room full of twelve year olds who took not a blind bit of notice of anything I said and threw plasticine at each other and at me. Some of those bits of plasticine stung, too, let me tell you! I think they little rascals hid marbles inside the pellets and let fly. At the end of it all, old Peter Potocki came in and said I’d got the job! I protested. I said, but I taught them nothing! I’m all over bruises from their terrible fusillades of green modelling gunk. He just patted me on the shoulder and told me that none of them had actually left the room, so I was in.
But the thing is, in the early days, a nodding acquaintance with the works of Jakob Schnellentaten was enough to secure you a post with a tiny stipend and no hope of promotion, no career structure and damn all fringe benefits, apart from the long holidays, which is quite a draw, between ourselves, as you well know!
Well, those days are long past and behind us, thank God! Of course a lot of people expect our lot to be an eccentric crew, but when all’s said and done, the education game is full of cranks and weirdoes of the first water, and I’m not just talking about staff, either!
In the dear dead days unfortunately not beyond recall – in fact seared into the memory banks with a welder’s torch – I enjoyed the pedagogical attentions of the Christian Brothers, as I’ve mentioned before. Brrr! A shiver runs down the spine at the thought, old man! How we survived it I’ll never know. Probably we all thought that this was how it was and ever would be, world without end amen.
There were a couple of fellows who used to chum round together at the school where I did my youthful porridge, demonstrating the truth of the maxim that opposites attract. One was a creature from the Home Counties of England, and the other was a spindly, exophthalmic chap from the Sub Continent called Rittoo, whose father used to sharpen up the scimitars at their embassy. He’d been foisted on us when he’d cut himself once too often on daddy’s handiwork, presumably on the theory that if he was going to blunder his way into an early demise, it was better to do it out of sight and out of mind, and not stain the embassy carpets. We had, oddly enough, a cadet corps attached to the place, and Rittoo was noticeable on parade by the inches of striped pyjama that hung down under his khaki battledress trousers, shading his winkle-pickers from view. Quite a good wheeze, this, in fact, as that khaki serge used to chafe the inner thigh like hell! So he had some notion of self-preservation after all. Anyway, his pal Badger Brock was the creation of some Baron von Frankenstein who cobbled him together out of solid granite and hair, and then force-fed him on steroids and monkey glands, until more suitable fare could be found, such as live rhino. He was the original Immoveable Object, all right, as visiting Rugby teams found out to their horror and chagrin. He was the only fellow I’ve known to giggle on receiving a sound thrashing with the pandybat. Water off a duck’s back, old man! He was absolutely impervious. It drove the Brothers mad, but what could they do? Badger was a Force of Nature.
They were in the chem lab one day, and Rittoo took it into his head to hold the earpiece of his specs in the Bunsen burner flame. Badger of course mentioned in the spirit of friendly advice that this way tragedy lay, tears before bedtime and so forth. Rittoo, always on his dignity, riposted with some force that he knew more about plastics than Badger did, suggesting a hinterland of specialist knowledge picked up in the hols, and himself on the royal road to a prosperous future in an up and coming industry; the gleam of impending vocation in his bulging eye.
At that moment, his gig-lamps burst into flame. The fire alarm went off and there was chaos; blood and snot everywhere as we all scrambled to muster on the front lawn for a head count. This was standard procedure, to make sure that no hapless bairn was trapped in the conflagration and reduced to a greasy spot on the floor, and if such was the horrible case, said greasy spot would have to be soaked up with blotting paper and sent to the sorrowing parents with a few words of condolence and a disclaimer for all responsibility from the school’s lawyers.
All was returned to what we laughingly called normal, and no one the worse, except poor old Rittoo, who went round stumbling into the furniture for a month afterwards, barking his shins on the desks and perforating his face with his fork at meal times, shoving mince up his nose in an effort to reach his bucktoothed gap, until a spare pair of unburned goggles could be found in a drawer at the embassy, given a polish and delivered by a spotty Herbert on an NSU Quickly.
Another vision that comes to the inner eye from the halcyon days is of Brother Bernard wresting by main force a four ten shotgun from a muscular young psychopath who thought it was perfectly reasonable to have such a thing sticking out of his tuck box ready for use when things got too stressful. He was what we call troubled these days. He grew up to be something big in the SAS, and is now retired and living in Shropshire with a chest full of medals. Well these are the people who grew up to take over. Us, in other words. It’s our generation, old man, and we’ve no one but ourselves to blame for the mess that we find ourselves in. All the more reason to try to do right by the weans in our care to redress the balance, or our fading hours in the Twilight Home will be too grisly a prospect to contemplate.
You see the problems all over, old man. Witness the trip that Yorick Warwick and Daisy Barnet did, taking the fifteen year olds to London for an educational beano. You’d never think that Yorick and Daisy would team up for anything, let alone a jaunt to the Mother of Parliaments. God knows what Yorick might have got up to with a band of teenagers and a chemistry set. He might have been bunged in the chokey for ever, and no bad thing either, if you ask me. But he’d been fairly quiet for a few weeks following a bout of flu, and Daisy was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Well, Yorick wasn’t the problem on this trip, as it turned out, and neither were the chislurs, bless their little hearts. They hired a coach from a firm called Coach Caledonia – First In The Field. It was painted the length of their old bus, but this didn’t explain that it indicated a tendency to veer off the road into the cow pastures. The firm was run by a pair of brothers in bottle glass specs called Wullie and Angus, who had to hold the map within a centimetre of their dusty old lenses to get their bearings. Yorick and Daisy got the first hint that they had perhaps made a poor investment in travel solutions when they were approaching the first roundabout on the journey to London from Edinburgh. There was one brother at the wheel and the other in the seat usually reserved for the guide with the microphone: needless to say a luxury not included on this trip.
The brother at the wheel turns to the brother in the guide’s seat and yells in a voice clearly audible to the back of the bus.
“Angus,” he calls, “there a roundabout comin’ up!” The note of panic was clear to all, even the teenagers.
“Dinnae worry, Wullie,” cries the other brother, and they perform a complicated shuffle as the bus lurches along at breakneck speed. The second brother comes and sits on the lap of the first brother, who then tries to slide out from under once the second brother has the controls firmly in hand, and the bus is no longer careering wildly all over the carriageway. It transpires that Wullie doesn’t do roundabouts. Angus has to take over each time one looms up, which means a complicated pantomime takes place every half hour, or less, until they hit the motorway. So it’s “Haud on, Wullie! Ah’ve goat the gear stick up mah erse!” and similar admonitions, for the length of the Borders country.
The next thing Daisy and Yorick notice is that they stop at every services en route! The reason for this becomes clear when, bowling down a long, arid stretch of road, one of the teenagers asks for the door to the w.c. to be opened.
“Naw,” says Angus. “Cannae dae it.” Well, very properly, Daisy comes forward to demand why not, perfectly reasonable request, girls of a certain age sometimes need the toilet in a hurry. It turns out that the toilet on the bus is out of service, as some connection with the engine was broken when going over a humped-back bridge in Dumfriesshire. Hence the frequent service stops. In the meantime, all those needing the facilities have to cross their legs and hope for no bumps in the road.
Ah well, they thought, at least London will be interesting. On arrival in the great metrop, Yorick asks Wullie, still at the wheel, to take them to Westminster for a gawp at the Houses of Parliament and similar objects of veneration.
“Whaur’s that aboot?” says Wullie. Seemingly, the First in the Field have no clue about the geography of the English capital city, and peering through dusty lenses at the tatty old A to Z doesn’t make them any the wiser. Yorick points to their elegant brochure, in particular to the sections about Coach Caledonia being intimately familiar with the great sites of interest in these islands.
“Naw naw,” says Angus; ”see that wis done when we had a boy workin’ wi’ us that kent aw they places: Stonehenge, White Cliffs o’ Dover; aw that.”
“So he’s no longer with you?” says Yorick, fixing the fellow with a beady eye.
“Nuh. He wis siphonin’ diesel oot the tanks and sellin’ it tae the taxi drivers. We hud tae gie ‘im the boot.”
“So,” says Yorick, slowly hauling this in and trying to get a clear view of the situation, “you have no idea how to get to Westminster.”
“Or anywhere else?”
“We’ve got the map, likes. Dinnae worry!”
“Oh, but I do worry,” says Daisy, who has been keeping a close eye on the brothers all the way. Meanwhile the teenagers have formed a clear idea of their position, and are now issuing catcalls and throwing crisp packets and coke bottles at the Responsible Adults. One young lad pipes up that he can drive a large vehicle, having driven his dad’s lorry from Newcastle to Penzance once when his dad was unexpectedly taken drunk. However, Neither the brothers nor Daisy can countenance this solution to their difficulties, so junior has to slump back into his seat, grumbling. Yorick was all for giving him a try, but he was outvoted by the grown-ups.
Eventually they all manage to return to Edinburgh, in spite of a few wrong turnings round the Great Wen, and more than a few terrifying moments as roundabouts loom, and on the way back, Daisy asks Angus how they came to be in this business, for which they are so evidently and patently unsuited, though she kept that aspect of the enquiry to herself.
“It’s the romance o’ the open road,” says Angus; “the rumble o’ the diesel, the shiftin’ o’ the gear. The rhythm as you’re rollin’ is music tae the ear, ye ken.”
“Call it a sense o’ vocation,” says Wullie from the driver’s seat. “Whoa! Roundabout comin’ up!”
And it was all legs in the air and beer bellies rolling and scrabbling for lost spectacles among the pedals for miles and miles – not to mention one roundabout driven over in a straight line, crushing the municipal daffodils – until the gates of St. Geoffrey’s hove into view at last. Daisy staggered out of the bus into the arms of Tom Hobbes, who poured her a sharpening drop from his screw-top cromak – and which for once she accepted – and said that if ever she believed in angels, she certainly believed in them now, it being altogether miraculous that they had arrived sound in wind and limb, though the nervous toll cost everyone a few months off their allotted span. Apart from Yorick of course, who, inspired by the adventure, had a bright gleam in his eye that augured the return of his inner daimon, and things soon settled back to normal. The kids apparently told their parents that the trip was “all right” in that lacklustre, affectless way that adolescents have, so all was ticket and boo, as Edeltraut used to say, until old busybody Larry Snudge corrected her. Thanks old man, I’ll have the same again. Here’s to adventure and survivors everywhere!